Day 2 008The slanging match over school entry ages and early education has begun again today, ignited by an excellent letter in the Telegraph from what are called 130 experts – a mix of academics, authors, teachers, early years practitioners, union leaders and others, headed up, for alphabetical reasons I presume, by the excellent Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner for England. The letter is reproduced here:

We are deeply concerned about the impact of the Government’s early years policies on the health and wellbeing of our youngest children. The early years of life are when children establish the values and mindsets that underpin their sense of self, their attitude to later learning, and their communicative skills and natural creativity. Though early childhood is recognised world-wide as a crucial stage in its own right, Ministers in England persist in viewing it simply as a preparation for school. The term ‘school readiness’ is now dominating policy pronouncements, despite considerable criticism from the sector. The role of play is being down-valued in England’s nurseries. For many children today, nursery education provides their only opportunity for the active, creative and outdoor play which is recognised by psychologists as vital for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. However, two key qualifications currently being drawn up for nursery teachers and child carers no longer require training in how children learn through play. Indeed current policy suggestions would mean that the tests and targets which dominate primary education will soon be foisted upon four-year-olds. Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it. Very few countries have a school starting age as young as four, as we do in England. Children who enter school at six or seven – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing. The success of Scandinavian systems suggests that many intractable problems in English education – such as the widening gap in achievement between rich and poor, problems with boys’ literacy, and the ‘summerborns’ issue – could be addressed by fundamentally re-thinking our early years policies.  Instead of pursuing an enlightened approach informed by global best practice, successive ministers have prescribed an ever-earlier start to formal learning. This can only cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children. We as a sector are now uniting to demand a stop to such inappropriate intervention and that early years policy-making be put in the hands of those who truly understand the developmental needs and potential of young children.

These ideas are better laid out in the TACTYC Occasional Paper No 2 by David Whitebread (one of the signatories) and Sue Bingham. However, the basic ideas here are strongly supported by evidence and a wide range of practitioners.  There is really only one argument here – that starting formal education and the assessments postulated to measure that education at age 4, is tackled at too young an age.  Government reaction (the often sensible Liz Truss) immediately focused on the view that if you don’t start children off with formal education nice and early, you won’t get over the educational attainment gap between rich and poor. That is partly a non-sequitur, but also ignores the impact of private schooling that is available to the better off. But at least she made an effort to be polite.

Enter Mr Gove, or at least his unnamed (and un-denied) assistant:

These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools. We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer – a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.

Bleating bogus pop-psychology sounds like the organ-grinder, I reckon, not the monkey. Mike Wilshaw (OFSTED head beagle) added precisely nothing to the debate with the comment:

the best nurseries and primary schools had a systematic, rigorous and consistent approach to assessment right from the very start.

as though those who were advocating a later starting age somehow don’t believe in rigour, consistency and thorough assessment. Assessment does not have to be tests, and is best (as plenty of people in industry will tell you) when it is not actually about a test.

The thinking behind this letter and references to the research that underpins it, comes from Wendy Ellyat of the Save Childhood Movement, and can be found here. The movement which she leads is relatively new, but the ideas behind it are well researched. To some extent, there is a “soft-option” feel about the Save Childhood website, and I could easily be riled by it were I ever to be appointed Mr Gove’s spokesperson. However, despite the need for us all to have the highest expectations of children, there is absolutely no need at all for those expectations to be solely academic, testable or to be focused on the kind of tests that are proposed in the latest proposals from the DfE.

This is a vital issue, and is being treated as such by both sides. It matters, this, who is right, and the debate, like nearly all debates to do with our children, is worth having. We still have a bit of a reputation around Europe for not being very loving to our children. We have more of a reputation for tolerating children and seeing education as a means of getting them off our hands. I am exaggerating to make a point, but not by much. When a group of European teachers visited St Mary’s, my previous school, in 2007, their first reaction was how open and kind all our children were, where they had believed a stereotype of them being closed and uncommunicative. If Mr G thinks that self-image really does not matter, he will be in real trouble when he tries to gauge how to help the poor. If he thinks that learning to add up nice and early is as important as all the other things we have to learn at that age, of love and attachment, of security, freedom and confidence, then I am very sorry, but to use the word misguided for others is an act of gross self-delusion.  That is not a particularly kind thing to say to a Minister of State whom I should offer respect to, but I cannot see a word on the horizon that expresses the thought more politely.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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